Brian Morton's Starting Out in the Evening is a study in the danger of expectations. Heather Wolfe, a pretty, brash graduate student, is confident that her thesis on the novelist Leonard Schiller will put her on the literary fast track. Yet her first meeting with her idol produces something of a shock: "He came toward her smiling. Old, fat, bald, leaning awkwardly on a cane. The man of her dreams." Can this elderly author and "man of routines" really be the looming figure whose early fictions changed her life? The more she comes to know Schiller, the more he confounds her: his willingness to toil in obscurity falls far short of Heather's romanticized ideal. She can't even quite decide "if he was a hero or if he had wasted his life."
Schiller, however, views his own life quite differently. At first he's seduced by Heather's flattering attentions, and succumbs to at least a frisson of desire for love and fame. Yet ultimately this thoughtful, dignified man wants only to finish what he has begun. He has "no illusions about the scale of his achievement, but he had tried, through art, to bring a little more beauty, a little more tolerance, a little more coherence into the world." With wise and compassionate prose, Morton examines the intersection of these two lives, intertwining their story with a third one--that of Ariel, Schiller's unhappy 40-year-old daughter. Along the way, the author quietly raises a number of questions about the utility of art, its power to inflect our dreams, and, finally, what makes a life well lived. It is to Morton's credit that he doesn't presume to answer such questions. Yet the skill with which he asks them makes Starting Out in the Evening an elegiac and deeply affecting novel. --Marianne Painter [via]